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How Odes and Biographies Challenge Established Concepts of Authority

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In examining the ways in which odes and biographies challenge established concepts of authority, with reference to Phillis Wheatley’s ode ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ and Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, context must be explored. The eighteenth-century was a time of societal interest in European colonial practice and Enlightenment imperialism. The long history of racial prejudice in Anglo-American society influenced oppression within the black community, which encouraged their exclusion from the established western literary tradition and Eurocentric canon. As the first published African-American slave, Phillis Wheatley challenges concepts of white superiority and colonialism by appropriating the elevated ode form; thus, she establishes her own rhetorical authority in a hegemonic tradition. As Betsy Erkkila observes, ‘A black woman reading, writing, and publishing poems was in itself enough to splinter the categories of white and black, and explode a social order grounded in notions of racial difference’. Indeed, following the 1739 Stono Rebellion, a South Carolina slave uprising that took place before the American Revolution, legislators made literacy in black slaves punishable by law. Enlightenment thought viewed writing as the principal form of genius and most salient expression of reason. Thus, the Anglo-African literary tradition challenged established concepts of authority by confronting Enlightenment beliefs that held people of colour as incapable of reason and, therefore, suited to inhumane treatment. As Dwight McBride notes, ‘Given the prevailing thought about Blacks during the Enlightenment, especially during the height of…the slave trade, Wheatley’s very life as a literary figure could be read as a profound resistance to oppression’. Thus, whilst propriety prevented black slaves from criticising slavery, Wheatley affirms her authority to write and publish abolitionist poetry within western tradition. She does so through use of satire and traditional elitist forms familiar to her white audience.

Consequently, white, patriarchal superiority within the literary canon galvanised resistance from oppressed women of colour during the twentieth century. This literary oppression amongst black women is described by Richard Yarborough: black women sought to ‘establish the credibility of their literary voices and thus their view of reality’, and biography/autobiography proved more effective ‘in the battle to gain a hearing for the true version of the Afro-American experience’. Indeed, black essayist Alice Walker turns to biographical literary criticism in an effort to subvert the ‘Great Men’ theory of life-writing. Walker’s biography turns to the absence of black women and their literary heritage in history, encouraging readers to look ‘low’ (and not merely toward a culture of life-writing long dominated by monied and propertied white men) for examples of creative expression. As biographer, Walker searches for a literary space for black women within a traditionally androcentric, Anglo-American canon. Walker employs anecdotal narrative throughout her biography (thus forming a self-conscious autobiography) to legitimise black female experience. As Laurie McMillan observes, ‘autobiography allows scholars writing from traditionally marginalized positions to simultaneously assert the legitimacy of their viewpoint…such a gesture is political in itself (given that) it challenges ideas about who is allowed to speak’. Subsequently, Walker acknowledges Virginia Woolf as her literary foremother, making reference to the essay A Room of One’s Own. Walker’s feminist rhetoric challenges the restrictions of white feminism that Woolf represents; Woolf’s metaphor of ‘a room of one’s own’, so representative of middle-class white women searching for the privacy to create literature, seems too exclusive for marginalised black women. Thus, both Walker and Wheatley, as this essay will demonstrate, challenge such established concepts of authority in a transgressive and revolutionary way.

In Phillis Wheatley’s ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, the authority of a black female slave is asserted within a western, androcentric literary tradition. Wheatley employs a rhetoric of epistemic authority through titular capitalisation, which implicates equality between Africa and America: ‘On Being Brought from AFRICA to AMERICA’. In doing so, Wheatley recognises the influence of American literary tradition on her African sensibility, but also subverts the established concept of American authority and superiority over her African self. In the first quatrain, the speaker wields a rhetoric of irony and double meaning, which serves as a bold critique of Christianity: ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too’. Here, the poet speaks directly to her oppressors through an ironic quasi-identification with her white readership. The use of italicisation implicates satire, which presents ‘Saviour’ as separate from God and acts as a rebuke of the Christian notion of redemption. Additionally, the pejorative adjective ‘benighted’ is indicative of the speaker’s indictment of accepted white superiority, given its connotations of both moral and intellectual ignorance and the dichotomy between light and dark.

Wheatley understands that her freedom to speak must be permitted by her white patrons and publishers and, as a result, her work may be viewed as a platitude for her white readership. Indeed, it is the employment of satire and double meaning that successfully inscribes seditious intent. As Carmen Birkle observes, it is in this way that Wheatley ‘cross(es) the border between slavery and citizenship in the new nation, between the private sphere of a black woman and the public realm of a published and accepted poet’. Thus, within the Revolutionary society of eighteenth-century America, Wheatley subverts what Audre Lorde calls the ‘mythical norm’ (defined as those white writers operating within a western canonical tradition) through double consciousness: appropriation of a neoclassic, Anglo-European voice and her own African expression. Additionally, the established concepts of authority and white supremacy within eighteenth-century American society were maintained through literary criticism. Indeed, any acclaim that Wheatley receives often characterises her poetry as an exception to the established standard of African-American writing, observing the ‘unusual’ creative and intellectual abilities of this black slave poet. As William J. Long notes, ‘Here is no Zulu, but drawing-room English…colourless imitations of Pope…she sings like a canary in a cage, a bird that forgets its native melody and imitates only what it hears’. Such reference to ‘colourless imitations’ is telling: Long’s indictment of Wheatley’s efforts to position herself within a western literary sphere, and his description of such an effort as ‘colourless’, emphasises the widely held belief that such classical verse (within the ode tradition) must be recognised as white poetry. However, this observation of poetic imitation is reductive. Whilst Wheatley acknowledges her assimilation of elevated language and the ode tradition as necessary for publication (permitted by her white patrons), she challenges established concepts of white authority. Wheatley encourages racial awareness and the cessation of the slave trade by referring to her African culture and heritage, drawing attention to black kinship and her ‘sable race’. Thus, Wheatley’s readership will come to accept a new authority: the authority of experience, that of the black, female poet.

Subsequently, Alice Walker, in ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, challenges the established Eurocentric tradition of life-writing by reclaiming such an androcentric heritage to create a literary space for African-American women. Walker subverts the accepted authorial voice by using anecdotal narrative techniques to explore the literature of black women and her literary foremothers. In this way, Walker legitimises the black matrilineal oral tradition as a form of literature. Walker writes: ‘Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One’s Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own…and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself?’. Here, Walker questions Woolf’s assertion that female writers require privacy and monetary aid. Walker uses Wheatley as an example, as well as ‘those millions of black women who were not Phillis Wheatley’, to challenge the restriction of Woolf’s remote room. Thus, Walker creates a communal space for marginalised writers whose creative attempts may seem futile to those who view privileged environments (or such a ‘room’) as the only legitimate means of producing literature. Indeed, Woolf recognises the invisibility of women in history: ‘One knows nothing detailed, nothing perfectly true and substantial about her. History scarcely mentions…middle-class women…these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded’. However, like Wheatley, the African-American oppression that Walker details is more serious than the wrongs inflicted upon the white middle-class women of Woolf’s text. As Sarah L. Skripsky observes, ‘As a once impoverished daughter of Georgian sharecroppers, Walker’s sensitivity to embodied expression may understandably exceed Woolf’s, at least in terms of marginalised subjectivities of race and class’. Thus, in creating an alternative to Woolf’s solitary room (as a space critical to women’s creative expression), Walker defines the site of creative production as technical to the fields that are home to slaves (some of whom are her relatives) and her mother’s garden: ‘(my mother) labored beside – not behind – my father in the fields…She planted ambitious gardens…I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden’. In doing so, Walker challenges the codes established by the western literary tradition and recognises that scenes of physical labour may become equally legitimate sites of creative expression.

Consequently, like Wheatley, Walker challenges the authority of a monolithic white literary tradition through recontextualising Woolf’s representation of the female experience in history. Walker writes: ‘Virginia Woolf wrote further, speaking of course not of our Phillis, that “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century [insert “eighteenth century,” insert “black woman,” insert “born or made a slave”] would certainly have gone crazed…a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by contrary instincts [add “chains, guns, the lash, the ownership of one’s body by someone else, submission to an alien religion”]’. Here, Walker moves beyond Woolf’s assumed margins for working class women and embraces the poorest examples of marginality. By rewriting the words of a feminist foremother, Walker creates a space for the voiceless black woman; her insertions speak to the history and experiences of Phillis Wheatley, alongside the many black women unable to write or publish poetry, those ‘who died with their real gifts stifled within them’. As Matthew A. Fike notes, Walker subverts Woolf’s paradigm of white female heritage: ‘instead of ‘Emily Bronte,’ ‘Zora Hurston’; instead of ‘wise women,’ ‘root workers’. Walker’s intention, then, is not so much to exclude white women writers as to include previously unknown black women, to supply “the missing parts” of the canon so that it might tell “the whole story” of women’s artistic tradition’. As Wheatley does with odes, Walker uses biography to subvert a form traditionally controlled by male writers. In this way, Walker brings to light the experience of the voiceless black women, enslaved in a foreign land, some of whom were her literary ‘mothers and grandmothers’ (p. 232). These oppressed and enslaved black women – ‘the mule(s) of the world’ (p. 232) -, for whom literacy was punishable by law, kept alive their creativity by bequeathing such spirit to their daughters. Like Woolf, through the imagined Judith Shakespeare, Walker lends a voice to silenced women in a (black) female literary tradition.

Like Walker, Wheatley continues to affirm her rhetorical authority in the second quatrain of her ode through challenging established colonial assumptions: ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / “Their colour is a diabolic die,” / Remember, Christians, Negros’ (ll. 5-7). For such Calvinist Puritans, with whom Wheatley lived, the colour black became associated with heathenism and bestiality, whilst white represented the blessings of Christianity and Calvinist philosophy of predestination. This established dichotomy between light and dark was especially opportune for slave traders, who saw such a doctrine as evidence of black paganism and a justification of colonial enslavement. The pejorative adjective ‘sable’ is indicative of Christian assumptions associated with the colour black. However, this definition undermines connotations of nobility and dignity. Thus, in one line, Wheatley radically challenges traditional proslavery views of the African race. Later, the neoclassic representation of ‘our sable race’ is replaced by the contemporary and derogatory term ‘Negros’. As with the italicisation of ‘Christians’, the speaker’s emphasis establishes the difference between Christian philosophy and Christian practice. As Sondra O’Neale observes, ‘Wheatley challenged eighteenth-century evangelicals in their cherished religious arenas by redeploying the same language and doctrine that whites had used to define the African, thereby undercutting conventional colonial assumptions about race and skin colour’. Additionally, the pronoun ‘some’ in line five places such hegemonic Christians in an inferior position and undermines their authority; an authority now indicative of oppression and hypocrisy. Wheatley’s readership is encouraged to accept the authority of the speaker, an authority representative of the redemptive power of Christianity.

Once again, Wheatley’s challenge to established concepts of colonial authority is represented through double meaning. In the ode’s closing lines, black oppression through the triangular trade is symbolised: ‘“Their colour is a diabolic die,” / Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train’. The speaker employs double meaning to emphasise the injustice of colonial practice: products such as sugar cane and indigo dye were acquired as a result of black slave suffering and such oppression is represented here, alongside the pun in the closing line representative of sugar refineries. Consequently, like Walker’s use of biography, Wheatley appropriates the ode form to assert her authorial power in a western tradition. As Ralph Cohen notes, ‘The turn to the sublime ode was undertaken by learned university poets’. As a black slave writing in an androcentric Anglo-American canon, Wheatley sought to subvert the colonial philosophy that held Africans as uncultivated barbarians. Whether Wheatley had the ability to write such learned poetry herself was judged by a panel of august gentlemen. Wheatley’s judges thought her qualified to have written such accomplished poetry and, thus, wrote an ‘Attestation’ letter ‘To the Publick’ which features as the preface to her book. Without this published approval, few Americans would believe that an African slave could have written such poetry herself. As Paula Bennett notes, ‘Through her poetry’s spiritual power, embodied in the western concept (of the ode), Wheatley gives back her ‘Afric’ speaker-self the powers, privileges and agency ‘snatch’d’ from her in life’. In this way, Wheatley successfully challenges established concepts of colonial power and literary authority.

Whilst Wheatley appropriates the sublime ode form, Walker introduces the metaphor of quilting as a representative of African-American tradition to challenge traditional concepts of ‘high’ art. For Walker, creative expression does not require approval from ‘legitimate’ artistic institutions, such as canonical tradition and museums. In many ways, patriarchal society, rather than suppressing women’s creative culture, introduced gardening and quilting as alternative means of artistic expression. Instead of asking why women were unable to produce great art, as white upper-class Woolf does, Walker reconceptualises the definition of ‘art’: ‘We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high – and low…in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., there hangs a quilt…the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling…it was made by “an anonymous Black woman”…an artist who left her mark…in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use’. Just ask Walker uses biography to reclaim an androcentric tradition and make it a medium through which to express the African-American female voice, quilting and gardening become a metaphor of challenging established concepts of legitimate art and creative authority. Art, then, is defined through a woman’s response to ‘rocky soil’ (p. 408), rather than the privacy and privilege of a room of one’s own.

By appropriating a form traditionally used by men, but discussing the experiences of black women, Walker, like Wheatley, asserts her authority and gives voice to those women who have been silenced in history and literature. As Hermione Lee notes, ‘Western biography has its origins in such educational stories of remarkable men…But you did not have to be Nelson in order to contribute to the national story, and you did not have to be the subject of a three-volume Life in order to be remembered’. Whilst Woolf claims that ‘the life of the average Elizabethan woman’ fails to be recorded throughout history, Walker creates a new literary space for the more marginalised black woman. In this way, Walker’s biography represents a revolutionary African-American tradition, one in which oppressed black slaves move from silence to speech and escape the ‘canary in a cage’-like confines of a male-inscribed canon.

Ultimately, both Wheatley and Walker challenge established concepts of authority in revolutionary ways. Wheatley assimilates the English language and appropriates the sublime ode form to dismiss the false authority of colonial practice and transgress the margins of her limitations as both slave and woman. Wheatley’s ironic use of double meaning and elevated diction, able to satisfy those publishers who insisted that slave writing must be in no way subversive, is indicative of Christian hypocrisy and, thus, challenges established perceptions about race. Similarly, Walker’s biography subverts the traditionally androcentric form by giving a voice to marginalised black women and producing for them a new literary space and social ground. Thus, by reconceptualising Woolf’s idea of the voiceless woman, Walker legitimises the art of black women and claims that Woolf’s solitary and privileged room is in no way sufficient for the African-American woman to assert her authority in a patriarchal canon.    

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How Odes And Biographies Challenge Established Concepts Of Authority. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from
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